Rare harpsichord recital links music and scholarship

From the archives:

February 1998

Rare harpsichord recital links music and scholarship

By Justin Urcis for the Yale Herald

For some musicians, a recital demands more preparation than practice. When a rare instrument like the harpsichord is involved, even a certain amount of research is even required for the performance. After the harpsichord was gradually displaced by the piano in the 18th century, it remained in a state of neglect for over a hundred years--until it was rediscovered in the 20th century. To understand their instrument, harpsichordists must travel back in time several centuries; they must become historians, combining musicianship and scholarship in their art.

Ferrucio Busoni at the harpsichord. The 'Busoni Sonatina' was written for this very harpsichord, which is now in the Yale Collection. Paul Cienniwa will perform on an instrument which incorporates features of this model.


Given the background research they require, solo harpsichord recitals are understandably rare. Nevertheless, Paul Cienniwa, MUS '98, will present a harpsichord recital on Thurs., Feb. 19 in Sprague Hall. Cienniwa, a Fulbright finalist planning to study the harpsichord in Amsterdam next year, enjoys taking advantage of Yale's resources and rediscovering early music.

Cienniwa will perform on a 20-year-old instrument that combines features of older harpsichords, a mix which provides the performer with the flexibility to perform 16th and 20th century music side by side. Although Sprague might seem like a large venue for such an intimate instrument, Cienniwa claims that the harpsichord sounds wonderful in the resonant hall. He explained that unlike the piano, "the harpsichord is about timbre, not volume. The experience of listening to the harpsichord could be compared to the aural sensation generated from `world music,' where one is completely enveloped in a sound-world."

The concert will begin with a sonata by C.P.E. Bach, followed by two preludes and fugues from J.S. Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, including the E major from the second book. According to Cienniwa, "the fugue is reminiscent of 16th-century counterpoint. It sounds like a Kyrie or Agnus Dei from Josquin. Playing it is like leading a choir." This reference to the 16th century will be followed by to John Bull's Walsingham, 30 variations on a popular song. In terms of length, technical demands, and vision, the piece is not dissimilar to Bach's monumental Goldberg 

The second half of the concert will consist of the severe, yet surreal,Busoni Sonatina. Filled with Debussy-like harmonies, the piece displays Busoni as a musical pioneer who sought to find a new language with the use of an old instrument. The program concludes with J.S. Bach's first Partita. Many listeners are accustomed to hearing Busoni's arrangements of Bach on the piano; this concert provides an opportunity for them to hear Busoni next to Bach on the harpsichord.

Historical investigation of a piece of music often produces new interpretations of it. Cienniwa cites the Gigue of J.S. Bach's first Partita, a piece which he will perform at his recital, as a prime example. He feels that many performers play the piece much too quickly, as most modern editions of the Partita are based on an edition made by the 19th-century pianist Carl Czerny. Czerny assigns the triplet figures that run throughout the movement to the right hand, which allows the pianist to swiftly negotiate the difficult figures with ease. The rapid eighth notes become part of the texture, rather than part of the Gigue rhythm, and the movement becomes more extroverted and showy.

After examining a facsimile of the first edition at a Yale library, however, Cienniwa saw that Czerny's arrangement distorted the meaning of the work. The facsimile clearly indicates that the left hand should take the triplets. The implications of this discovery are immense: the Gigue is played far more slowly, with greater attention to the dance rhythm than to virtuoso display. The result is startling to anyone familiar with the piece.

Yale has much to offer harpsichordists: a music conservatory, a library system that contains authentic musical documents, and one of the finest collections of historical keyboard instruments in the world.

"Fortunately, we can find out exactly what Bach, Rameau or Couperin said about how to play their music," Cienniwa said. There is no reason to trust anything other than the sources. We want to get as close to truth as possible," Yet he is puzzled that many musicians do not push themselves to discover new interpretations. "Today there is such a concern with what other people do. Not enough people trust their musicianship. We do not need to rely on recordings to understand a piece of music. We should trust our own intellect and instincts."

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